Pictured above: Xiaomeng “VKLiooon” Li celebrating her victory. She’s the first woman to win a Hearthstone Grandmasters Global Finals esports tournament and a BlizzCon tournament. Source: Washington Post and Blizzard Entertainment.
2019 was a year of difficult truths. Whether it was climate change, politics, or vaping, there have been many challenging issues that affected ourselves and fellow humans -- and reverberated throughout our digital echo chambers. It was a year of heightened emotions for everyone, and the esports community experienced new highs and lows alongside the rest of the world.
Esports has come a long way since the “gee whiz” days when playing video games professionally was still a novelty, and this year was full of stories that exemplified it. 2019 showed us that esports is not a phenomenon or a fad -- esports is culturally embedded in our lives and the greater happenings of the world, and it has a unique ability to illuminate the beautiful things buried within it.
Here are the top esports stories that inspired us in 2019, and some of the voices behind them.
The end of the year is a time when family comes to mind, and family support has long been a sensitive topic in esports. For many pioneering pros of the past, the reaction from parents and other relatives has been confusion or even hostility. We saw the tides change in this old narrative in 2019, with more and more relatives embracing the esports stardom of those near and dear to them.
For esports journalist Emily Rand, witnessing the story of another esports professional’s relationship with his mother helped heal her own wounded one. In a personal column for ESPN, Rand recounts her visit to South Korea during the 2018 League of Legends World Championship, including her experience at a restaurant called Yumine. Yumine’s proprietor is Kim Yoon-mi, the mother of legendary League of Legends jungler Han “Peanut” Wang-Ho, and she had built the establishment into a veritable shrine to her son, with photos and memorabilia on every wall. Rand traced the evolution of Mrs. Kim’s perspective on her son’s career from ire and disapproval to wholehearted support, paralleled by her relationship with her own mother and, perhaps, those of many others in esports.Reflecting on her piece after its publication, Rand wrote to The Story Mob that this was a story she had been wanting to tell for a while.
“I was surprised when [Kim Yoon-mi] expressed regret that she had drilled into Peanut to always be first in everything, and her honesty was incredibly emotionally-affecting. It mirrored similar things I had heard from my own mother growing up ... I wanted to try to express that fine line between well-meaning love and what could also be regarded as a hyper-competitive, overbearing nature,” she said. "I was honestly blown away by the response.”
Overwatch League team Washington Justice played host to another family story when DPS player Ethan “Stratus” Yankel’s mom, Christine, spoke with The Washington Post about encouraging Stratus on his path to becoming a pro gamer. While her son’s profession still feels “surreal” to Christine, as she told The Post:
“If you don't know anything about the technology or what your kids are doing, then of course that's going to stir up fear. That's understandable. But the more you're exposed to it and the more you're familiar with it, the less scary it becomes.”
While some parents of teenagers would still describe their kids’ gaming hobbies as “laziness,” 13-year-old streamer zylTV proves that it could also be described as “healing.” This summer, after his father was given a year to live without cancer treatment but struggled to afford it, zylTV streamed Fortnite for multiple days straight to raise money for his father’s treatment, and his tireless work quickly paid off. He caught the attention of pro Fortnite players like TSM’s Mackwood and duo XXiF and Ronaldo, as well as hundreds of thousands of strangers over reddit and other social media platforms, who collectively donated over $13,000 to help save his father’s life in just five days.
Esports fans are known for their passion. We’ve seen mainstream consumer brands closing major sponsorship deals in 2019 precisely because audiences are motivated to do things (like buy products) if they are connected thoughtfully to esports. In 2019, esports team organizations started to wield their tremendous influence to support humanity at large in new ways, not just improve their bottom line.
On World Blood Donor Day, Team Liquid and Blood Centers of America launched the Heal for Real campaign to encourage esports fans to donate blood — a crucial initiative to reach the 20- to 34-year-old population that’s severely underrepresented among donors at a time when blood donations are needed more than ever. Team Liquid threw its entire weight behind the campaign, launching limited edition red jerseys for donors and hosting blood donation buses at esports tournaments across the USA. Liquid will continue to host blood donation trucks at their events next year.
Likewise, Misfits Gaming and its Overwatch team, the Florida Mayhem, partnered with The Gift of Life Marrow Registry to increase the number of younger bone marrow and stem cell donors to help those affected by blood cancer. Together, they hosted swab drives at colleges and universities across Florida as well as online, resulting in almost 200 new potential donors and over 10,000 viewers and attendees of the events who now better understand the Gift of Life’s important mission.
Team Liquid and Misfits weren’t the only ones to give back in a big way this year -- not by a long shot. We also saw individual pro players, speedrunners, esports legends, internet celebrities, and even amateur gamers put their skills and their platforms to use and raise money for charity, from all corners of the world. Some highlights: in France, a group of gamers held a 54-hour marathon stream that raised over 3.5 million euros for the Pasteur Institute for Science. In Las Vegas, Rick Fox was joined by League of Legends stars in his Champions for Charity livestream, supporting the Bahamas Relief Foundation. And in a Hilton hotel in Bloomington, Minnesota, the Games Done Quick speedrunning charity marathon raised more than $3 million for Doctors Without Borders, a new record for the nine-year-old event.
Conventional wisdom often suggests that face-to-face connections are more meaningful than those created online, but the power of streaming and other digital broadcast platforms are challenging the old cliches. This year showed us that even if we only know someone through their tweets, their streams, or their casts, the shared experiences and communities at the heart of esports make our relationships just as strong as they can be in real life. The best examples of these powerful, internet-forged relationships are the moments when communities come together in mourning or support someone in grief.
During Astralis’s victory at IEM Katowice 2019, star player Peter “dupreeh” Rasmussen shared his father’s recent passing and his father’s last wishes for him to win the tournament during his post-game interview. Seeing dupreeh’s emotion on stage, the crowd didn’t sit, listening in silence -- it erupted in front of him with chants of support.
The StarCraft community’s BlizzCon tribute to veteran pro player, caster, and personality Geoff “iNcontroL” Robinson, and the Smash community’s tribute to inspirational streamer Desmond “Etika” Amofah at The Smashies award show during Super Smash Con, showed just how close we can feel to someone without ever meeting them in person. Through esports, these amazing figures have been memorialized and mourned in entirely new ways -- through videos, re-living streams, memes, and (for iNcontroL) commemorative digital items inside the game itself that millions of current and future StarCraft players will get for free.
It’s a truism in sports and entertainment that the most popular stars fit a certain “profile” -- they have physical and other traits that are compelling to wide audiences. Talented people who don’t fit the mold in some way can be overlooked or shut out of the conversation due to their gender identity, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, age, or similar factors. One area that esports has in common with traditional sports is the need for greater representation and inclusion of marginalized people, but as we expanded into new geographies and communities this year, we saw major steps towards diversifying the industry.
The celebrated multi-title fighting game champion Dominique “SonicFox” McLean used their star power and highly visible profile to advocate for people on the margins of esports and inspire important conversations about gender identity and expression. In August, they hosted a marathon charity stream in support of The Trevor Project -- the leading American organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ+ youth -- raising over $22,000 in 72 hours. Then, this past fall, SonicFox came out as non-binary in a thoughtful Twitter thread reflecting on gender expression and the pronouns that feel comfortable to them. A black, nonbinary, gay pro gamer who dons a fur suit and competes with a trans rights flag might be out of some people’s comfort zones, but that didn’t stop the Esports Awards from presenting them with Esports Console Player of the Year 2019.
With greater awareness of esports as an avenue for professional and personal growth, more schools have been leading the charge to diversify esports and create opportunities for different communities. This year, Virginia’s Hampton University was the first historically black college or university to launch a specialized esports track, with the goal of becoming the number-one producer of esports coaches in the nation. And Hathaway Brown, a private high school in Cleveland, became the first all-women’s school to launch a varsity esports program in the US.
Although esports still has a long road ahead towards true diversity, and progress can’t come fast enough, there are small victories that give us hope. As Hathaway Brown’s varsity esports coach, J Collins, said to The Story Mob: “In our second season, we were excited to have the nation's second all-girls' school esports team join our league. Laurel School is right down the street from Hathaway Brown, and we are so inspired by seeing the student-driven excitement that led to the creation of their team. This can be a space for everyone.”
Adversity – and conquering that adversity – is at the center of any competition. For many, the odds are stacked against them before starting a match or walking onstage. For those who grapple with more challenges than the average person in pursuing their dream career – and who have to work extra hard just to get their foot in the door – esports offers a unique advantage. With the internet and a capable computer or phone, anyone has a shot at improving their skills and surpassing everyone’s expectations of how far they could go.
This summer, Capcom featured 31-year-old Mike “Brolylegs” Begum who, despite being born with a condition that prevents the full use of his hands and feet, worked his way to the top ranks of Street Fighter -- and aims to teach others his perspective on overcoming obstacles and developing the tenacity to find success. This fall, VKLiooon became the first woman to win an esports world championship at BlizzCon at the Hearthstone Global Finals, and used her post-game interview to encourage other women gamers to never give up on learning, growing, and achieving their dreams, in spite of the difficulties they face. And on Cheddar this past October, Sylvia Gathoni, a Tekken player and the first Kenyan pro gamer to sign with an esports company, shared how mastering a complex game like Tekken taught her to accept challenges, learn from them, and work hard to improve, even in a part of the world where resources and support for esports are scarce.
Finally, pro Overwatch players from Hong Kong overcame a lack of funding and an international controversy to compete at the 2019 Overwatch World Cup. Like other teams outside the top 10, Team Hong Kong was left to find its own funding to compete, managing to drum up just the bare minimum for flights and accommodations. Then, Blizzard’s suspension of Hong Kong Hearthstone pro gamer Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai for showing support for Hong Kong activists on an esports broadcast lit up the internet, and Team Hong Kong had to make a choice: stay home in the wake of the controversy and financial constraints, or continue to aim to represent their country on the global stage. Unexpectedly, Team Ireland and a host of well-wishers across the world were inspired by blitzchung’s actions and rushed to help, quickly raising the full $80,000 needed to fund Team Hong Kong’s travel to BlizzCon plus an extra $10,000 through crowdfunding. While the team ended up falling to Germany in the second round of the tournament, their presence at the event and the global outpouring of support it represented provided a hopeful, positive postscript to an international incident that had sent the esports world into turmoil.
Competitive gaming and communities have existed for decades. These stories (and many others that we couldn’t fit in one post) have proved to us more than ever that esports is only just beginning. With each heartfelt relationship and connection made through tweets, videos, and streams, and with each underdog conquering their personal demons or challengers for the first time, we saw the same core truth. Esports’ potential to serve as a completely new kind of media platform – a platform that connects and empowers people who were not engaged or empowered before – is only just taking wing.
Do you have your own inspiring esports story to share? Let us know on twitter @TheStoryMob, and if you’re hungry for more esports stories, check out our storytelling guide: Beautiful Weirdos: Telling the Stories of Esports Heroes.